The Cult of Historical Preservation

The D.C. Preservation League recently announced its 2007 list of “most endangered” properties. While there’s nothing wrong with historical preservation per se, the recent list shows why and how the preservationists have transformed themselves from a sensible, aesthetically concerned citizen’s movement into a quasi-religious calling. Because of D.C.’s status as a master-planned national capital, every major element of the city’s architectural heritage is well-cared for: nobody could, would, or (probably) should suggest anything other than continued, indefinite care and preservation of the U.S. Capitol, the Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt memorials. For equally good reasons, nobody is ever going to make a serious suggestion that we do away with tiny neighborhood gems like Meridian Hill Park. So what’s left is. . .well. . .junk that doesn’t need much preservation.
A recent list in The Washington Post makes the point better than I could. Only one item on the list–a deteriorated World War I memorial–really seems worthy of state-supported preservation. The rest are just silly. They include:

  • D.C.’s old Martin Luther King Library. Although designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–a great architect–the building is likely the worst he ever build. Essentially, it’s a sideways version of his great New York City Segram building that was constructed without the attention to detail or high-quality materials that characterize his best work. The building, furthermore, doesn’t even come close to fitting into D.C.’s urban fabric. It’s a dud and deserves demolition.
  • An underground water filtration system underneath a group of decaying masonry structures. In other words, D.C.’s old plumbing.
  • Some townhouses that are in good shape but are under ownership that plans to do things (like building a boutique hotel) that preservationists don’t like.

The list could go on but I think it makes one thing pretty clear: D.C.’s preservationists simply want to replace sensible public sector managemnet and use of private property with their own fetishistic views of what should be saved and what shouldn’t. They have a right to speak but, in my judgment, society would be better off if most people simply ignored them.